Six more boats on the way as Kevin Rudd strengthens attack on crime syndicates
By Paul Maley and Amanda O'Brien
The Australian, October 15, 2009
Australian authorities are tracking about six asylum boats suspected to be on their way to Australia after the federal government revealed that organised-crime syndicates were responsible for the 'vast majority' of boats reaching Australia.
As Kevin Rudd renewed his attack on 'vile' people-smugglers, West Australian Premier Colin Barnett said the government must reconsider introducing the so-called 'Pacific Solution' if it hoped to deter new arrivals.
But speaking in Adelaide, Mr Rudd emphasised regional co-operation as the key to eliminating the 'scourge' of people-smugglers, who he said represented the 'vilest form of people on the planet'.
Mr Rudd's tough rhetoric came as Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor told The Australian the flow of boats could slow if Australian and regional authorities could disrupt some of the criminal syndicates at the heart of it. Mr O'Connor said most of the 1704 boatpeople to arrive this year had been ferried to Australia via organised gangs, rather than opportunistic fisherman or freelance operators.
'Organised syndicates are involved in the vast majority of vessel arrivals,' Mr O'Connor said. But he said authorities stood some chance of stemming the flow if they could disrupt the operations.
The minister's remarks came as sources told The Australian that border protection authorities were actively tracking asylum boats suspected to be headed to Australia from Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
However, the source emphasised it was not certain all would undertake the trip.
Yesterday, Mr Barnett moved to link the fatal boat explosion off Ashmore Island in April, with the standoff between Indonesian authorities and the 260 Sri Lankan boatpeople intercepted at Mr Rudd's request.
'I guess that message has got through that if you take extreme action, some of you will get to where you want to get to,' Mr Barnett said.
'That's part of the dilemma; we cannot take a soft or equivocal view on this issue.'
He said the fire threat by the Sri Lankan asylum-seekers was a 'horrible scenario' that could lead to hundreds of deaths.
'Clearly we are talking about desperate people who are prepared to take extraordinary risks.'
Mr Barnett said it was no secret the conditions relating to illegal immigration had been relaxed in Australia and boat numbers were set to increase.
'There is no doubt that this is understood among those that engage in that dreadful trade of people-smuggling,' he said.
The Premier said stronger policies were needed and the government should now re-examine the Howard government's tough Pacific Solution policies, which involved processing refugees on Pacific islands such as Nauru.
Yesterday, Mr Rudd was forced to defend his request to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to intercept a boat carrying 260 people, who yesterday remained locked in a standoff with Indonesian authorities.
'I make no apology whatsoever for adopting a hardline approach when it comes to illegal immigration activity,' Mr Rudd told reporters in South Australia.
'And I make no apology whatsoever having a hardline and humane approach to dealing with asylum-seekers.'
But as the Prime Minister continued his attack on the previous government's policies, he was forced to hose down reports his government was considering reopening Howard-era detention centres.
Mr Rudd said there were no plans to reopen the Baxter detention centre in South Australia.
The Prime Minister's denial provoked bureaucratic confusion within the Immigration and Defence departments, which have responsibility for Baxter.
Yesterday, a Defence spokesman told The Australian plans to reopen Baxter had been considered in early talks between Defence and Immigration but subsequently ruled out. But within 15 minutes the spokesman called back claiming Defence had been in error and that Baxter had never been on the table.
A spokesman for the Immigration Department, Sandi Logan also flatly rejected the reports.
'At no time has the department considered the reopening of Baxter as an immigration detention centre and it will not be reopened,' Mr Logan said.
The opposition renewed its attack on the government's softened policies, which it says are behind the surge in numbers.
The Coalition said the government had been warned of the likely impact of their changes by the AFP, which in March prepared a confidential report examining people smuggling.
In May, opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis asked then-AFP commissioner Mick Keelty if he was familiar with the report, 'Strategic forecast for transnational criminal trends and threats'. During Senate estimates exchange, Senator Brandis asked if the report contained the sentence: 'Reporting indicates that people-smugglers will market recent changes to Australia's immigration policy to entice potential illegal immigrants. This may cause a rise on the number of attempted arrivals.'
Mr Keelty refused to answer.
Yesterday, the opposition pointed to a question on notice from the AFP confirming the document's existence and saying it had been disseminated within government. 'This document included a component relating to people smuggling,' the AFP said.
Malcolm Turnbull seized on the revelation. 'We've been warning the government all year that the softening of our border protection policies would result in an increase in people smuggling activity,' the Opposition Leader said. 'It is now apparent that the Australian Federal Police has held the same view for quite some time.'
Opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone said Labor's policies had resulted in chaos. 'No country can afford to continue like this,' she said.
Indonesian immigration officials were yesterday preparing space in a detention centre, likely to be one in Sumatra recently refurbished with Australian funds, to process the Sri Lankans refusing to leave their cargo chip in the port of Merak, where it had been towed by the Indonesia navy. The Tanjung Pinang detention centre can take 600 residents but has fewer than 100, most of them from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A navy intelligence source told The Australian that the original order to search for the ship came on Friday directly from the Co-ordinating Minister for Politics, Justice and Security, General Widodo AS. This contradicted a claim that it was information from Mr Rudd at the weekend that tipped the Indonesians off to the asylum-seeker boat's existence.
Rudd talks tough on people smugglers
By Phillip Coorey and Yuko Narushima
The Sydney Morning Herald, October 15, 2009
Australia is plan A for refugees
By Stephen Fitzpatrick
The Australian, October 15, 2009
Focus on smugglers 'may upset Jakarta'
By Yuko Narushima
The Age (Melbourne), October 15, 2009
Gillard backs immigration handling
Sky News Australia, October 14, 2009
Labor policies 'more inhumane than Howard's'
The Australian Associated Press, October 14, 2009